Historical Context


Reading Time: 9 minutes

Students at Warwick University recently reminded us that “racism is class”.This is valuable insight into the thinking of young white men. Racism, sexism and class are relevant ideals today. Ideals invented to obtain and keep power, for the few. But what does class mean for women? How is feminism defined in a class system? 

CLASS CATEGORIES HAVE BEEN REIMAGINED BUT NOT ELIMINATED  What we are talking about here is a system that organises society whereby people are separated into groups based on perceived social or economic rank.While my reading on the class system is in its infancy, what I have been able to gather so far, indicates it is important.

Some might argue differently. Take the BBC survey in 2013. It tells us, traditional understanding of class does not apply. The system that housedthe upper, middle and working class erased. Instead, seven new social classes were offered. I noted the survey did not say the system does not exist nor, necessarily unimportant. What it is implying instead, and in my opinion, is that class is now less important. The new categories offered create greater distance between the most privileged and the poorest. The four classes in the middle give the impression power is more widely distributed. I remain unconvinced.

I believe class is a decisive advantage or disadvantage. Historically, class has played a significant role in movements for social justice. The women’s rights movements included. This has led many to conclude the main beneficiaries of social change were (and are today) the middle-class women.[1]Why is this? 


Movements in Britain and the US struggled to incorporate problems faced by working women and those who “enjoyed material comforts”. Middle class women.

Women’s suffrage struggle in America was founded on middle-class problems.  Angela Davis gives a good account of this in her chapter on “Class and Race in the Early Women’s Rights Campaign”.Her analysis shows the contradictions of the 1848 radical Seneca Fall Declaration. Driven by Elizabeth Cady Stantonand forcibly advocated by Fredrick Douglas.

The significance of the Seneca Fall Conventionis that it was the first conference on the topic of women’s rights in America. It covered other topics like social and religious conditions. The Declarationwas the document presented at the conference which outlined 16 factors of women’s oppression. It demanded women’s “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges”. Women’s right to vote was among the solutions discussed. This was radical because women participating in politics was unthinkable. It was only signed by 68 women and 32 men, out of 300 signatures. It nevertheless set in motion the campaign for women‘s right to vote. The Declaration was therefore a big milestone.

However, as Davis shows, it was framed around problems specific to middle-class women. The institution of marriage being one. Educated women like Stanton and Susan B Anthonyfound themselves living under the supervision of their husbands. Their education, knowledge and skills, shelved, in favour of their primary duties, motherhood and house work. The Declaration overlooked problems faced by working women. Women who generally had a different experience at home. As breadwinners, they achieved equality with their men. What they experienced, along with their men, was economic oppression as workers. With an added layer due to their class as women. 

The textiles industry, for example, employed more women than men. Because they could be exploited more for less. They worked long hours, in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, and their wages under threat. Davis shows, prior to 1848, these women were challenging these conditions. As far back as 1820s. The example she gives is that of the Lowell Mill Women. They unionised themselves in 1830s and while repeatedly defeated, they won a 10-hour day campaign. Which was not enforced. But the Declaration did not reflect these grievances. It therefore asserted an incomplete definition of what it meant to be a woman. 

The definition asserted in Britain was perhaps a similar one. 

Women’s suffrage struggle in Britain assumed middle-class values.Famous faces for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) were those of Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. While they adopted different approaches, both “were white, middle class, and well-educated.”[2]This prominence gives the impression the 1918 partial win of women’s vote was fought and won by this class of women. This is because “Popular history focuses on the more wealthy fighters for women’s rights”[3]

This New Statesmanarticle argues that while the working women’s voices were often left out of the mainstream, they were part of the movements’ fabric. Their struggles were integrated into the pursuit for the vote. Furthermore, it argues, the WSPU, formed by Pankhurst in 1903, represented no one specific class. This blue-stockingsjournal takes a similar view. Arguing any class conflicts within the movement were on a personal level. This is drawn from Sylvia Pankhurst’s story of her feud with her mother. In their exchange, Sylvia claims her mother expressed strong views about working-class women who she thought were lacking. Lacking in education and capability. 

The New Statesman article usefully outlines working women’s militant work. Demonstrating both their capability and resolve. It educates us on women like Louisa Entwistle, a weaver from Blackburn. She was among the 60 women arrested following a protest, organised by WSPU, outside Parliament in 1907. She opted for prison over a small fine. This could not have been an easy choice. 

Prison was different for working class women. They received harsher treatment. This was exposed by Lady Lytton. An upper-class woman who went undercover as a seamstress. She was ruthlessly treated in Liverpool prison. The health examination process was less thorough, so her pre-existing heart condition went undetected. She was immediate released once her cover was blown.[4] 

These actions and the risks associated show that the Representation ofthe People Act 1918 was also won by working class women. And it may have cost them more. The arguments that their involvement demonstrate they were represented in the movement are unconvincing. Since the WSPU did not dispel the accepted British class attitudes. But rather mimicked them, personally or otherwise, I assert the movements assumed middle-class values. This evidence by restrictive 1918 Act, and the neutral reaction from the movements. 


The 1918 Act was a partial win. It allowed some women to vote. Those over 30 and with certain property rights. The latter part of the criteria meant 2 million working class women were denied a vote. As this journalshows[5]. The complicated criteria meant there may have been reasons other than class that affected the low number of women registered to vote. However, these were more manageable for middle class women. For example, they had the means to challenge or seek advice. Working class women did not. 

Disappointingly, as the journal goes on to show, middle class women did not seem to resent the exclusion of their comrades. It highlights clearly the lack of alarm on this point in women’s movements. The injustice was understood, but no action followed. Working women had to wait a decade after to vote, under the Equal Franchise Act 1928. Worse still, their exclusion was not what motivated the women’s campaign for the 1928 Act. Movements, like the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), were driven by the age disparity. They wanted votes for ‘women at 21 on the same terms as men’with a second demand for “Peeresses in their own right a seat, voice and vote in the House of Lords”.

This last part further exposes the movement’s specific class interests. That and their manner towards the working women’s exclusion, suggests a class prejudice.

What the American women had in common with the British women. It is easier to define how movements in America excluded problems specific to working women, perhaps thanks to Davis’ more concrete analysis. It is more challenging to extract that from the movements in Britain. Attitudes in both countries by middle class women were not dissimilar[6]. They took the view that working-class women were less hungry for political equality and incapable of real battle. Contrary to working women’s deeds.

I find Pankhurst’s militancy inspiring. Stanton also, for her resoluteness in demanding political recognition for women in the face of adversity. Many around her, including those more experienced women’s rights activists, like Lucretia Mott, viewed the suggestion as outrageous. I also find their views on working women disappointing to read. They expose their incomplete perspective on women’s experience. 


In this historical context we see women’s experience of sexism differed according to their class. What class means to women is having different areas of focus. Middle class women, defined women’s interests based on their needs, revealing their first interest was class. They put forward a discounted feminism lacking assessment of the white working women, black women and other ethnic minorities. As Simone de Beauvoir put it; 

The weakness of feminism stemmed from its internal divisions; …women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; the bourgeoise and proletariat interests do not intersect.” (The Second Sex, 1949)

This is perhaps the basis some argue energy would be better focused on the class struggle. Not feminism. I might be willing to accept that argument if it was a means, not an end, to eradicating women’s oppression. 

I still believe it is not a question of feminism but rather its focus. Traditionally focused on problems specific to the middle-class women. If we agree sexism is experienced by all women, then perhaps the solution is redefining feminism. Based on the interests of the working class, black and ethnic minority women. The idea being, improvement for the most impacted, improves conditions for all. 





[5]The Missing Two Million: The Exclusion of Working-class Women from the 1918 Representation of the People Act https://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/1824

[6]Angela Davis outlines this further in her 9thChapter: Working women, Black Women and the History of the Suffrage Movement

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